Friday, July 28, 2017

ATOMIC BLONDE Has More Fun



I like imagining Charlize Theron saw 2014’s slick, cool, expertly choreographed Keanu Reeves actioner John Wick and thought to herself, “I gotta get me one of these.” And get it she did. From that film’s stuntman co-director David Leitch comes Atomic Blonde, a stylish, knotty last-dregs-of-the-Cold-War thriller set against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall’s fall. German unrest is at a head, and into this mess strides Theron as an ice-cold, hyper-competent, platinum blonde secret agent who must plunge ahead into one last mission tangled up in Stasi, Soviet, French, British, and American spies fighting (and double-triple-quadruple-crossing each other) over a MacGuffin. There’s a potential defector and a list of undercover identities in the mix, and all the combatants want them for one reason or another. But is there any doubt it’s Theron who will emerge victorious? She has all the right moves. The movie is told largely in flashback. It opens with Theron’s pulling her naked body out of an ice bath, showing painful cuts and bruises dappling her skin. After dressing for her day, she smolders into a debriefing room where Toby Jones and John Goodman eye her suspiciously and ask her to explain what went down in Berlin. She proceeds to spin the tale – of seduction, sabotage, secrets, and surveillance accounting for each and every injury. It’s hard to keep track of the ins and outs of the byzantine plotting – at once pulp simple and complicated – but with Theron in the center of it all, our sympathies and source of awe are never in doubt.

Grooving on a frosted palate and the smooth New Wave cuts pulsating on the soundtrack, the film keeps its intoxicating placid cool. Leitch glides the proceedings easily through the complications of spycraft genre conventions – moles, listening devices, traitors, hookups – enumerated by the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (300 and its superior sequel) from the comic book The Coldest City. It’s stock stuff, but elevated to pulpy pop art by its sleek exuberance, and by Theron’s fierce, believably outlandish performance – solid and steady, a human terminator who takes a beating and keeps going. Leitch has the good sense to center her in the telling and the frame, finding supreme entertainment even in the way she walks across a tarmac or slips into the back of a car. This is a woman who always knows exactly what she’s doing, how she’s carrying herself, and what to do to prepare to beat down any attackers. The variety of action – held in steady shots lovingly revealing the whole-body choreography from multiple combatants – is thrilling. She fights off two men from inside a speeding car armed only with a sharp red high heel. She grabs a length of garden hose to fend off assailants in a grubby apartment. In the film’s highlight, she goes up an elevator and down a staircase, in and out of a bunch of rooms along the way, punching, kicking, slapping, stabbing, and shooting a handful of formidable villains. By the time she and the last man standing are breathing heavy, bleeding from multiple wounds, and clutching throbbing muscles, staggering as they attempt to regain their balance, you’d think the fight is done. But there’s still a chase sequence to come.

Mostly a short and sweet genre riff done up in pleasing period burlesque and oozing casually ostentatious style in every frame, Atomic Blonde is committed to serving up memorable action beats. It takes what could be a hackneyed, played-out, half-comprehensible plot in more lugubrious, self-serious hands and just digs into its improbabilities as a clothesline for its visual tricks and exquisite action. Theron is the capital-S star, and she’s surrounded by dependable actors (James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgard) doing what they do best. It fills the downtime with enough eccentric flavoring without overpowering what Theron’s doing at center stage. Everyone’s just a piece of the puzzle – a cog in a conspiracy, obstacle to be run over, asset worth flipping or deceiving. Besides, it’s all about the sheer pleasure of the film’s posing and posturing. It’s in a gleaming pair of sunglasses, a shock of neon, a white trench coat, a car sailing backwards through a busy intersection, a seductive French photographer, a wily watch salesman, a wall standing ominously dangerous (for the last time) in the center of town. It’s in the thwack of a blow connecting, the snap of a sniper’s gun, the blast of pop from a car stereo, the crunch of boots in the snow. The movie’s pleasures are exactly this simple and surface and satisfying.

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